How to Sight Read Music

Three Parts:Brushing Up on Music TheoryImproving Your Sight Reading SkillsPreparing to Sight Read

In order to strengthen your skills as a musician, advance in your craft, and become employable, you must know how to sight read music. Sight reading is an important part of most auditions, and a very necessary part of being able to keep up in an orchestra, choir or band setting. If you learned to play your instrument or sing by ear, learning to sight read music will help make you a more confident and effective musician and performer.

Part 1
Brushing Up on Music Theory

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    Understand the different types of notes. When sight reading music, you will see whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes. These notes are characterized by differing duration, or the length of time it's played. The whole note is the longest, and they get shorter respectively. For example, a sixteenth note is 1/16 of a whole note.[1]
    • While you might think music and math have nothing in common, understanding the different types of music notes is as simple as understanding basic fractions. For example, a quarter note is 1/4 of a whole note. In other words, you can play four quarter notes in the time you would play one whole note.
    • Each note has a different symbol. The parts of the symbols are the head, the round part of the note, the stem, the line that extends from the head, and the flag, the curved line coming off the stem, like a flag.
    • A whole note is denoted by just an open note head, without any stem or flag. A half note has an open note head and a stem. A quarter note has a closed (filled in) head and a stem. An eighth note has a closed head, a stem, and one flag. A sixteenth note has a closed head, a stem, and two flags.[2]
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    Familiarize yourself with time signatures. Time signatures appear on all pieces of sheet music, and they tell you the amount and type of notes in each measure. To put it simply, time signatures tell you how fast or slow the song will be played. When it comes to sight reading, this is the very first thing you will note about a piece, so it's extremely important that you understand time signatures thoroughly. Practice different rhythm exercises to make yourself feel more comfortable working within different time signatures.[3]
    • If the time signature is 4/4, that means that each measure contains four quarter notes. The top number refers to the amount of notes, and the bottom refers to the type of note.
    • A time signature of 3/4 means there are three quarter notes, 6/8 means six eighth notes, 3/2 means three half notes, and so on.
    • Use a metronome to help keep track of tempo.[4]
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    Memorize key signatures. The key signature is a grouping of signatures that instructs you to play a certain note a half-step higher or lower than you typically would. Basically, the key signature tells you how to play the music however the composer intended, and therefore it's a crucial component of sight reading.[5] The key signature can be found right next to the staff, generally at the beginning of a line of musical notation.[6]
    • To read sharp (major) key signatures, look at the last sharp on the key signature and move a half-step above that. So if the last sharp is a C, the key would be in D major.
    • To read flat (minor) key signatures, look at the second to last flat (read the flats left to right). If the second to last flat is E, the song is in E-flat major.
    • F major (or D minor) is the exception to this rule as this particular key signature only has one flat (B-flat).
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    Learn where each note falls on the staff. There are two types of clefs: treble and bass, and notes look different depending on which clef you’re using. Learn the location of every note on both sets of clefs and practice until you recognize the notes just by looking at them.[7]
    • On a treble clef, the line notes spell out EGBDF from top to bottom. Use the mnemonic device, “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge.”
    • On a treble clef, the space notes spell out FACE from top to bottom.
    • On a bass clef, the line notes spell out GBDFA from top to bottom. Use the mnemonic device, “Good Birds Don’t Fly Away.”
    • On a bass clef, the space notes spell out ACEG from top to bottom. Use the mnemonic device, “All Cows Eat Grass.”[8]
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    Practice your scales. Practicing scales will help both vocalists and instrumentalists become more familiar with the names of each note and where each note falls on the staff. If you’re an instrumentalist, practice the scales without looking at your hands.[9]
    • If you’re looking at your hands, you’re not able to let your eyes focus on reading the music.
    • Instrumentalists should also practice sight singing. This will help you work on phrasing, intonation and musicality.

Part 2
Improving Your Sight Reading Skills

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    Give your full attention to the music in front of you. In other words, act as if every piece of music you are sight reading is the most important thing in the world at that moment, clearing your mind of other daily distractions and worries. Sight reading involves a lot of moving parts – you have to keep track of notes, rhythms, key changes and one thousand other variables. It’s impossible to sight read perfectly without focusing your entire brain on the task at hand.[10]
    • Challenge yourself to sight read an entire piece of music without making any mistakes.
    • Whenever your mind begins to wander, refocus and start the piece again.
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    Divide music into large chunks. When you first begin sight-reading, you may attempt to count every beat, divide every rhythm, and tap maniacally to the beat. Relax! Every piece of music has hundreds of notes and trying to count and identify every single one can be exhausting and impossible. Instead, divide the piece into bigger chunks of music and try to read it that way.[11]
    • Cut each measure into two parts, and note where the downbeats are. This is a method of interpreting the music in a more relaxed, musical way.
    • Now you can look at two beats, or even an entire measure, at a time. This is a lot less chaotic than attempting to count each and every beat.
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    Look for familiar rhythms. While each piece of music you encounter is beautifully unique, there are certainly repeating patterns that you'll continuously encounter. Purchase sight reading practice materials. Children get better at reading words by reading multiple books. Musicians get better at reading music by sight reading multiple pieces. Try going online to sites like PianoMarvel to gain access to sight reading exercises and music pieces you can practice reading.[12]
    • Also look online for free sheet music websites.
    • Ask your music teacher if they have extra music they’d be willing to let you copy.
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    Keep a practice journal. Practice often. The best sight readers are musicians who are relaxed and confident in their skills. Becoming an experienced sight reader can take years, but implementing good practice habits is something you can do right now. Try to practice your sight reading for at least fifteen minutes every day.[13]
    • Write down what you practiced and how long you practiced in your journal.
    • Practice sight reading slowly. You can always pick up the pace after you feel more comfortable with the music.
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    Use drills to improve. Not only will practice drills help you recognize certain patterns, memorize note types, key signatures, and time signatures, it will also help you become a more confident musician. Websites like allows you to practice for free online.[14] Grab a cheap music book, flip to a random page, and start sight-reading something. Just like with any skill, the more you sight read, the more confident and proficient you will become. As you feel more comfortable with the basics, you can start fine-tuning your skills.

Part 3
Preparing to Sight Read

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    Read through the music. When you first see the piece, take a moment to look it over without your instrument. Try tapping out the rhythm, reading the notes and looking over the structure to see which bars will be repeated.[15] Every time you encounter a new piece of music, you should go through a basic checklist in your head.
    • Memorize the key signature, divide the music into chunks like previously discussed, note any repeating rhythms and tricky spots, and tune out the day's distractions.
    • Look for any markings that denote changes in speed, volume or accidentals.
    • If you have permission, mark these changes on your sheet music using a pencil.
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    Play through the piece in your head. Take a moment to sound the piece out and look for patterns within the music. See if there are places where the melodies repeat themselves. Study the piece as hard as you can before ever picking up your instrument.[16]
    • Look for places in the music where there are scales or arpeggios.
    • The more familiar you are with the music, the easier it will be to sight read when you actually have your instrument in hand.
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    Breathe, and brush off mistakes. Sight reading can be overwhelming, but breathing can help you remain focused and can even keep you on tempo. Relax your body and your mind and try to concentrate on the work. Keep going if you make a mistake, because freezing up can only make the problem worse. Make a mental note to practice the part that caused you an issue, and then forget about it.[17] There is more music to play, and you'd be surprised how often an audience misses a small mistake.
    • If you are a singer or if you play a wind instrument, use a pencil to mark where you should take a breath.
    • Don’t beat yourself up if you don't read the music perfectly your first time out. Sight reading is a skill that takes time to develop.

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